Study shows humans' brains are ‘prewired’ to see words

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The human brain may not be fully formed until the age of 25, but it doesn’t take nearly that long for them to be receptive to see words.

According to a study recently published in the journal “Scientific Reports,” at birth, humans have a portion of the brain that is prewired to be responsive to seeing words and letters. The indication is that the visual word form area (VWFA), which is tied to the brain’s language network, puts things in place for people to learn to read.

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“That makes it fertile ground to develop a sensitivity to visual words — even before any exposure to language,” lead author Zeynep Saygin, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, said in a press release.

Specialized for reading strictly in literate individuals, the VWFA has been hypothesized in its pre-reading stage to be not unlike other portions of the visual cortex that are sensitive to seeing faces or objects. It was thought that the VWFA becomes particular to words and letters only as children learn to read or at least while they learn a language.

“We found that isn’t true," Saygin said. "Even at birth, the VWFA is more connected functionally to the language network of the brain than it is to other areas. It is an incredibly exciting finding.”

To conduct the study, Saygin and psychology graduate students Jin Li and Heather Hansen and psychology assistant professor David Osher examined MRI scans of the brains of 40 newborns. All babies were under a week old and part of the Developing Human Connectome Project, the goal of which is to build “a dynamic map of human brain connectivity from 20 to 44 weeks post-conceptional age.” The map is meant to tie clinical, behavioral, imaging and genetic data.

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The scans from the Developing Human Connectome Project were compared to similar ones of 40 adults who participated in the separate Human Connectome Project. That effort aims to provide a unique collection of neural data, a method to see the data with images and “the opportunity to achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.”

Researchers discovered that even in infants, the VWFA differed from the part of the visual cortex that identifies faces. This is primarily because it has a functional connection to the part of the brain responsible for language processing.

“It’s interesting to think about how and why our brains develop functional modules that are sensitive to specific things like faces, objects, and words,” said Li, also a lead author of the study. “Our study really emphasized the role of already having brain connections at birth to help develop functional specialization, even for an experience-dependent category like reading.”

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Presently, researchers in Saygin’s lab are scanning the brains of 3- and 4-year-olds. The effort is meant to discover information about how the VWFA behaves before children learn to read and the visual properties the region is responsive to.

Saygin said the aim is to learn how the brain becomes a reading brain. Researchers may be able to understand differences in reading behavior by learning more about individual variability, which could be valuable when studying developmental disorders, including dyslexia.

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